In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Wilkie Collins

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Essay Collections
  • Letters and Catalogues
  • Biographies
  • Early Responses
  • Relationship with Dickens
  • Art
  • Empire, Race, and Colonialism
  • Spiritualism and the Gothic

Victorian Literature Wilkie Collins
Andrew Scott Mangham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0017


Wilkie Collins (b. 1824–d. 1889) was one of the most influential authors of the 19th century. He was credited with creating sensation fiction with his best-known work The Woman in White in 1860 and detective fiction with The Moonstone in 1868. He wrote novels, plays, short stories, and journalism. He was born into an affluent family of artists; his father, William Collins (b. 1788–d. 1847), was a Royal Academician and Wilkie’s younger brother Charles Allston (b. 1828–d. 1873) was an artist that later painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style. Wilkie Collins trained as a barrister in the 1840s but decided to become a writer. He met Dickens in 1851 and soon after become an employee of Household Words. From 1847 to 1859 Collins produced a number of novels and shorter pieces of fiction in addition to reams of journalism. The early novels were innovative and well crafted, but none enjoyed large popularity. In 1858 Collins met Caroline Graves; he would have an on-off relationship with her until his death in 1889. The author also fathered three children with Martha Rudd, whom he also continued to see until his death. In 1859, following an acrimonious split with the publishers of Household Words, Dickens started the new weekly periodical All the Year Round, commissioning Collins to write a novel. In the summer of that year, Collins began work on The Woman in White. What followed was Collins’s most successful and defining decade. The Woman in White was followed by No Name in 1862, Armadale followed in 1866 (for which the author was paid a record amount), and The Moonstone in 1868. It has been agreed generally that after 1870, Collins’s creative powers waned, although he did continue to write prolifically and successfully. He became increasingly addicted to laudanum and was seriously affected by the deaths of his mother, brother, and Dickens. Algernon Charles Swinburne’s damning couplet “What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition? / Some demon whispered—‘Wilkie! have a mission’” illustrates how Collins’s later work was considered weaker because it crusaded on behalf of a number of causes. Literary studies are beginning to appreciate these novels as important works of art in their own right, however, and the early novels are similarly attracting more sustained attention. When Collins died on the eve of the fin de siècle in 1889, his final novel Blind Love (1890) was completed by the novelist Walter Besant and was published posthumously.

General Overviews

A number of general overviews of Collins’s life and work have appeared in recent years. The most useful of these, as a point of immediate reference, is Gasson 1998. Law and Maunder 2008, Marshall 1970, Nayder 1997, and Pykett 2005 all provide thematically arranged starting points for considering the author’s engagements with his own culture. Pykett 2005 is the most engaging and accessible of these. Heller 2003 comments handily on the trends and directions of Collins studies while Costantini 2008, Thoms 1992, and Rance 1991 adopt specific thematic or discursive approaches to Collins’s novels.

  • Costantini, Mariaconcetta. Venturing into Unknown Waters: Wilkie Collins and the Challenge of Modernity. Pescara, Italy: Edizioni Tracce, 2008.

    An analysis of Collins’s oeuvre in relation to the changing waters of 19th-century literature and culture. Costantini demonstrates how much of Collins’s style anticipates early-20th-century modernism.

  • Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins: An Illustrated Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Arranged as an A–Z, this illustrated guide is an extraordinarily useful resource. In addition to supplying information of many of the people and works that Collins knew, Gasson offers synopses of all the major novels and journalistic pieces.

  • Heller, Tamar. “Masterpiece Theatre and Ezra Jennings’s Hair: Some Reflections on Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going in Collins Studies.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 41 (2003): 361–370.

    As the title suggests, this piece is a succinct and useful exploration of the state of Collins studies. There has been a lot of activity in this field since 2003, so Heller’s assessment has its limitations.

  • Law, Graham, and Andrew Mauder. Wilkie Collins: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    This volume in Palgrave’s Literary Lives Series focuses on Collins’s career; it provides a unique account of his place within the literary world of 19th-century Britain by taking advantage of new research into the author’s letters and biography.

  • Marshall, William H. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1970.

    An early general overview of Collins’s life and works.

  • Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, New York, 1997.

    Part of Twayne’s venerable English Authors Series, Nayder’s study (according to the cover blurb) “argues for a multifaceted view that takes into account Collins’s simultaneous and complex stance as radical reformer and upholder of the patriarchal, imperial order.”

  • Pykett, Lyn. Wilkie Collins: Authors in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    An affordable and accessibly written account of Collins’s historical and literary contexts. This book looks at a wide range of themes including class, gender, social mobility, sex, crime, empire, science, film, and television adaptations. Pykett also offers a more up-to-date account of the state of Collins criticism.

  • Rance, Nicholas. Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists: Walking the Moral Hospital. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991.

    Rance seeks to counteract the dominance of “gender issues” in Collins studies by accounting for how the author engaged with ideologies of self help and bourgeois development.

  • Thoms, Peter. The Windings of the Labyrinth: Quest and Structure in the Major Novels of Wilkie Collins. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

    A study of Collins’s major works in relation to the developing geography and impact of Victorian London.

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